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'Red Lines, Death Vows' artist discusses how ideas drive building, city design

What if, rather than building an architectural project as laid out in the plans, a builder built the building code instead?

That isn't exactly the kind of question Damon Rich asks in his work at the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in New York. But it gets close.

Rich is interested in the "social dynamic of architecture and planning," he explained at a presentation Dec. 11 at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. He was on campus to talk about the project CAVS has commissioned him to develop, "Red Lines, Death Vows, Foreclosures and Risk Structures." It focuses on real estate finance--where money comes from to build and repair buildings and what dynamics lead to the abandonment of buildings.

Rich, a Loeb fellow this year at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, wants to bring to the surface the abstractions and ideas embedded in architecture.

These may be as simple as a handicapped access ramp put in front of a building because of federal regulations introduced in the 1970s, which he cited as an example of "architectural forms that develop in response to law." Or they may be as complex as a towering skyscraper, permitted to exceed height limits as a result of a complex bargain with neighbors for air rights.

CUP, a nonprofit, is interested in how social movements take form in legislation and how that legislation then takes form in architecture. CUP tries to help schools and community organizations to see "the invisible architecture embedded in our built environment," Rich explained. "We see all architecture as having an educational function."

Rich makes clear, it isn't just sociology he's after; it's art as well--the visual representation of the forces he's studying. CUP projects result in exhibitions that look recognizably like art exhibitions, albeit with a sense of humor and whimsy.

One CUP project, "City Without a Ghetto" (2003), involved mapping all of the areas in New York City that had been designated for "urban renewal" during the heyday, in the 1970s, of that now widely discredited effort. The project considered, among other things, the strange gerrymandered shapes of some of the districts.

"We asked, what political forces determined these shapes?" Rich said. The resulting exhibition included a collection of tables, one for each district, with a top in the shape of that district.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 20, 2006 (download PDF).

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